Gramsci, Antonio (1891–1937)

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Antonio Gramsci, the Italian socialist born in Sardinia, founded the Italian Communist Party in 1921. He turned from political action to philosophical study when the Fascists jailed him in 1926 in order, said the public prosecutor, "to stop that brain working for twenty years." That brain, one of the most gifted that communism has produced, could not be stopped even by the inhuman conditions of Benito Mussolini's prisons: Gramsci filled three thousand pages with writing on a vast range of philosophical and political subjects. His frail health undermined by ill treatment, he died in Rome a week after his commuted term ended.

From the thirty-two prison notebooks, devoted editors have extracted "books" by grouping fragments on connected topics. In addition, L'ordine nuovo (1954) is a collection of articles from a socialist newspaper of that name, Letteratura e vita nazionale (1950) contains book and drama reviews, and Lettere dal carcere (1947) are his letters from jail. The heroic conditions under which he worked, and his founding role in Italian communism, may be responsible for overestimation of Gramsci's contribution to philosophy, but there is no doubt of his erudition and critical powers.

His philosophical notes (they seldom attain essay length) go beyond defense of Marxist doctrine; they mean to be a refutation of the idealism of two eminent ex-Marxists, Benedetto Croce and Georges Sorel. His criticism of them is seldom hostile, and in fact implies a disparaging opinion of orthodox Marxist-Leninist thought. Gramsci's central thesis is that Karl Marx's "materialist" overturning of G. W. F. Hegel was not a once-for-all affair that left communism, in Friedrich Engels's phrase, the secure "heir of the classical German philosophy." It had to be a continuing effort, to be repeated by each generation. Better, it was a Giambattista Vico-style cycle in which the same work of philosophical synthesis recurred at ever-higher levels. Gramsci saw that official Marxist thought in his day was in danger of relapsing into that vulgar materialism from which Marx's Hegelian training had rescued socialism a century before. Thus, it needed a new blood transfusion from speculative philosophy, a synthesis with neo-Hegelian idealism, notably with Croce and Giovanni Gentile.

This diagnosis entailed departure from the standard Marxist view on how philosophy "culminated" in revolutionary action. The last of Marx's Theses on Ludwig Feuerbach"the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point however is to change it"had been taken to mean that philosophy would be realized in, and replaced by, revolutionary action. The postrevolutionary world would have no room for mere speculation, and philosophy would become the ideological branch of the administration. Gramsci replied that philosophy could not be realized in, and even less supplanted by, political action. If the proletariat were to be "the heir of the classical German philosophy" (and if it were not, the revolution would be a cultural failure), it would have to pursue some recognizably philosophical activity. Specifically, it would be bound to go on reckoning with speculative idealism, putting it back on its feet as Marx did with Hegel and as Gramsci hoped to do with Croce.

Any one philosophy or system could indeed "culminate," or be realized. In fact, if it were a significant cultural product and not reverie, it surely would be. Yet that realization, the passage from speculation to action, from theory to practice, was not the "end" of philosophy foreseen by many Marxists. Rather, it was the transposition of private thinking into historically effective mass beliefs and a new ethic. Thus, Gramsci's program was to synthesize V. I. Lenin and Croce, to produce a reinvigorated Marxist philosophy that could be translated into a mass faith "like the Protestant Reform or the French Enlightenment."

The victory of such a new ethic was the essence of revolution, which meant above all "a moral and intellectual reform" and the "creation of a new integral culture." In all this, Gramsci explicitly followed Sorel but, against him, he denied that a "revolution of ideas" could do without politics, as Lenin practices it. His defense of Leninism, and of political organization generally, was a genuine contribution to political theory. Incidentally, it involved a fresh assessment of Niccolò Machiavelli. Gramsci wanted to be "both Robespierre and Kant," and indeed he succeeded in combiningat least on paper and in jailthe tough-minded political practicality of communism with a liberal attachment to classical education and philosophical culture.

See also Communism; Croce, Benedetto; Engels, Friedrich; Feuerbach, Ludwig; Gentile, Giovanni; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Lenin, Vladimir Il'ich; Machiavelli, Niccolò; Marx, Karl; Marxist Philosophy; Sorel, Georges; Vico, Giambattista.


primary works

Opere, 12 vols. Turin: Einaudi, 19471972.

Gli intellettuali e l'organizzazione della cultura. 1949.

Il Risorgimento. 1949.

Note sul Machiavelli, sulla politica e sullo stato moderno. 1949.

Passato e presente. 1951.

Il materialismo storico e la filosofia di Benedetto Croce. 1948.

The Modern Prince and Other Writings. Translated by Louis Marks. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1957.

The Open Marxism of Antonio Gramsci. Translated and edited by Carl Marzani. New York: Cameron Associates, 1957.

Prison Notebooks. Edited by Joseph A. Buttigieg. Translated by Joseph A. Buttigieg and Antonio Callari. New York: Columbia University Press, 19921996.

secondary works

Bellamy, Richard, and Darrow Schecter. Gramsci and the Italian State. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1993.

Cammett, J. McKay. Antonio Gramsci and the Ordine Nuovo Movement. Ann Arbor, MI, 1960.

Femia, Joseph V. Gramsci's Political Thought: Hegemony, Consciousness, and the Revolutionary Process. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981.

Lombardo-Radice, L., and G. Carbone. Vita di Antonio Gramsci. Rome: Edizioni di Cultura Sociale, 1951.

Matteuci, N. Antonio Gramsci e la filosofia della prassi. Milan: Giuffrè, 1951.

Ottino, C. Concetti fondamentali nella teoria politica di Gramsci. Milan: Feltrinelli, 1956.

Neil McInnes (1967)

Bibliography updated by Philip Reed (2005)